Pearling in Cape York and the Torres Strait

20,000 Years of Pearling


The popular story of pearling begins in the 1860's however Indigenous use of pearl shell goes back 20,000 years. Pearl shell was used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in everyday life and was also traded for canoes, food and human heads.

Capt Banner & King Kebisu


In 1868 on the Brig Julia Percy, Captain William Banner and his South Sea Islander crew harvested the first commercial quantity of pearl shell from the reefs of Tudu. A Blackbirder and resource raider, he became friends with King Kebisu. 

1899 Pearling Disaster


In March 1899 the worst maritime disaster occurred when hurricane Mahina bore down on Cape Melville destroying 4 motherships, 54 luggers and killing more than 300 crew.

The Forgotten Pearlers

Aboriginal divers we used to gather pearl shell without any apparatus.

Blackbirding of Cape York Aboriginals for the Torres Strait pearl shell industry has been largely forgotten. Men, women and children were forcibly removed from their camps. Pregnant women were chosen to free dive for their apparent skill in breathing underwater - a fallacy that killed many.

Frank Jardine - Somerset


A controversial figure in the history of Cape York and the Torres Strait, Frank Jardine and his wife Sana, the Princess of Samoa built Somerset and ruled the North for decades. A private photographic collection of the Jardine-Vidgen Family has been uncovered and includes some never seen before images.

Coming of the Light


The London Missionary Society set out to convert people of the Southwest Pacific to Christianity from the 1840s. In July 1871, the Reverend Samuel MacFarlane anchored at Erub in the Torres Strait, accompanied by South Sea Islander evangelists and teachers.

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